Workers Against War (YCL)

Workers Against War
Author: Christopher Lee Gray
Publishing date: 19.11.2002 14:08

What if there was a war and no one showed up? Imagine that working class Americans refused to fight to advance President Bush’s imperialist objectives. Imagine that those who keep America running refused to make or ship the implements of war. Imagine workers stopping business as usual to halt the US war machine. Imagine if a coalition of left and center forces could be organized into a mass peace movement. Bringing organized labor into the movement can help make this a reality.

What if there was a war and no one showed up? Imagine that working class Americans refused to fight to advance President Bush’s imperialist objectives. Imagine that those who keep America running refused to make or ship the implements of war. Imagine workers stopping business as usual to halt the US war machine. Imagine if a coalition of left and center forces could be organized into a mass peace movement. Bringing organized labor into the movement can help make this a reality.

Organized labor has the potential to be one of the most powerful voices in the movement for peace and justice in America. President Bush’s “War on Terrorism,” demands working class men and women make dire sacrifices, such as healthcare, education, and for soldiers overseas, even their lives. This gives Labor the strategic power and position to make or break Bush’s war.

But why would the workers of America want to be part of the peace movement? Polls taken soon after the events of September 11th revealed overwhelming support for military action in Afghanistan and beyond, and workers were no exception. But as the weeks and months go by, support for the “endless war” has slowly waned. The war on terrorism has fallen short, failing to deliver physical and economic security. New assaults on the poor and working class are being pushed along with the renewed jingoism. Because workers bear the brunt of militarism, they should play a critical role in the peace movement. Of these attacks, the threat to our children’s education is one of the most difficult to accept. Even before 9/11, advocates of public education were fighting a constant battle against cuts and privatization. Today, Many states are finding themselves in a budget crisis. Billions of dollars are being diverted to the military, and states will shift the burden to our public schools and the poor. In New York City, where the effects of 9/11 have taken a devastating economic impact, proposed cuts to the education system are approaching $1 billion.

With the looming budget crisis, more crucial social services are also under threat of the chopping block. That is not organized labor’s only concern. The chilling and widespread violation of our civil liberties, such as the USA PATRIOT Act also represents an assault on the working class. As a reactionary response to terrorism, the government swept hundreds of immigrants into detainment camps, a chilling throwback to the World War Two era internment of Japanese Americans. The expansion of law enforcement powers to include interception of email messages, search and seizures, and more are all troubling.

Though pointing to the effects of the war at home is an important way to illustrate the need for peace, we must not ignore the horrendous effects of the war abroad. Thousands of Afghans have died in the bombing, and thousands more are expected to succumb to disease and famine. The war has destabilized the entire region, helping to bring India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war. The war has given Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister of Israel, the precedent to undertake terrifying acts of state terrorism against the Palestinian people.

Working people have paid billions of dollars in taxes in order to gain security, but thus far, the war has been a complete failure. None of the alleged perpetuators of the September 11 hijackings have been apprehended. Osama Bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the attacks, has slipped away. In fact, no evidence has ever been presented to the American Public that Al-Queda was even responsible for the crimes committed on 9/11, or that war will eliminate the threat of terrorism. Despite a massive military mobilization, Americans are still daily bombarded with vague terrorist warnings.

Despite all the reasons that labor should be for peace, in the past, organized labor has been unable or unwilling to work with the peace movement. According to Scott Marshall, Labor Secretary of the Communist Party, USA, organized labor had little interest in building the peace movement during the war in Vietnam. “Even though many workers opposed the war in Vietnam,” Marshall said, “Leadership often trashed those who disagreed with their official position.”

Marshall was a youth activist during the war, and strove for an alliance between labor and students. He expressed his disappointment saying,” Top level leadership was not oriented toward the youth movement. These issues were just not considered in the leadership of unions.”

While rebellion didn’t occur within the rank and file, there was resistance among the working class men and women serving in the armed forces. In the jungles of Vietnam, hundreds of soldiers refused to go on patrol. In the streets of America, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group of recently returned soldiers, protested America’s military occupation.

The voice in the streets brought an end to the brutality of the Vietnam era, despite labor’s indifference. Now, a new movement in labor may be able to raise the resistance necessary to avoid another human tragedy.

John Sweeney’s defeat of Lane Kirkland, in the first ever contested presidential election in the AFL-CIO’s history, may prove to be a turning point. During Kirkland’s presidency, the AFL-CIO bowed to the State Department’s cold war, anti-communist foreign policy. This policy cost the union much of its respect in the international labor movement, and was coupled with a sharp downturn in domestic organizing.

Taking office in 1995, Sweeny’s administration began to move labor in a progressive left-center direction. Scott Marshall believes that this change is due to a broader understanding of international affairs saying, “Individual unions, as well were pressed to a more internationalist outlook as they faced the reality of globalization.”

This is also reflected in the dismantling of three AFL-CIO’s institutions that had shown complicity with U.S. imperialism. The Free Trade Union Institute, African American Labor Center, and the Asian American Free Labor Institute were all replaced by the American center for International Labor Solidarity. Popularly known as Solidarity Center, this arm of the union acts without government funding or manipulation. Many see this as a new age in the AFL-CIO’s international relations; free from the heavy handed influence of the State Department.

This new understanding has led to the building of powerful anti-globalization coalitions at home. Organized labor participated in the protests in Seattle, and recently rallied against the World Economic Forum in New York City. The AFL-CIO has stopped short of passing a resolution against the war, but as Scott Marshall said, the climate is much warmer than that of the Vietnam Era.

Marshall reported on the AFL-CIO’s Biennial Convention in Las Vegas, December 6, 2001. A resolution was presented to support the war. During the debate about the specific language to be used, an addition was suggested so that Bush was not given a “blank check” for the conflict. Though the suggestion failed to pass, Scott Marshall saw hope, saying, “There was none of the trashing that happened during Vietnam. I think a lot of union members are cautious about giving Bush a blank check.”

While the AFL-CIO officially supports the Bush’s war, they have been vocal on the injustice of the war at home. A statement released on April 5, 2002 takes a clear stance on the undemocratic USA/PATRIOT act, condemning its assault on our civil liberties. The language of the statement is remarkably clear. “Our love of liberty compels us to also speak forcefully in opposition to a range of measures the administration has taken, or reportedly is contemplating, that threaten civil liberties, breach constitutional rights and with tragic irony, hand our adversaries a partial victory by degrading the essential guarantees upon which our nation is founded.” The statement goes on to criticize the detainment of thousands of immigrants, and John Ashcroft’s anti-terror legislation.

Under this new leadership, the AFL-CIO has demonstrated a new commitment to international solidarity. A resolution, adopted by a unanimous decision by the convention, takes a strong position on Palestine. Again, the language is clear and powerful, saying, “We urge Israel to withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities and we call upon Palestinian and Arab leaders to act to end the terror bombings.”

The statement continues, drawing a connection between the conflict and working people saying, “when violence escalates, it is working people who pay the price, in loved ones lost, homes destroyed, and dreams crushed.” At a time when many Americans sympathize with Israel, forgetting the struggle of the Palestinians, the AFL-CIO has made a profound statement.

It’s not just the AFL-CIO that is leading the labor movement toward left-center unity. Cynthia Rodriguez, Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, representing of more than 22,000 public sector workers, recently spoke at an anti-war panel in Chicago. “This war was a gift for the Bush Administration. They came in with an agenda to attack Social Security and worker’s rights, and now they’re on a roll.”

Dolores Huerta, who founded the United Farm Workers Union alongside Cesar Chavez, recently spoke to War Times, a national anti-war newspaper. She pinpointed the connection between the war and working class people, saying “Instead of monies going to our children, they?re going towards war. + It?s affecting the entire world. Also, the anti-immigrant policies that are related to the anti-terrorist laws affect many immigrants. It?s going to be much more difficult to immigrate to the U.S. All this has produced more racism against people of color.” She said. “It?s a step backwards.”

Many trade unionists are uniting to stop the attacks on the working class, and some unions, like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, District Council 1707 (AFSCME DC 1707), New York’s District Council, have even come out in direct opposition to the conflict. 1707 has gone so far as to ally themselves with organizations like New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW).

NYCLAW is just one of the many labor-based peace organizations springing up all over the country. It was formed in the first few days after 9/11 by a small group of local union officers and union members. Like other organizations of its kind, NYCLAW is dedicated to organizing the rank and file at the grass roots.

Michael Letwin, Co-Convener of NYCLAW told Dynamic, “We want to be both an anti-war pole within labor and a labor pole in the anti-war movement. “Letwin continues saying, “The war has been presented as the only solution to what happened on September 11. We argue that war only perpetuates the ultimate causes of 9/11 in the first place.”

As a symbol of labor’s resistance to the war, NYCLAW has issued a statement, to be signed by union members. To date, more than 1,100 trade unionists have signed the statement, including more than 15 former and present union presidents, and it has received the official endorsement of AFSCME DC 1707.

This movement is also alive on the West Coast. The San Francisco Labor Council (SFLC), an AFL-CIO union has declared its official opposition to the war on terrorism. A statement released days after 9/11 read, “The tragic attacks of September 11 should be treated as a heinous crime rather than an act of war.” In later press releases SFLC continues to expresses concern that the wartime atmosphere will be used to justify attacks on worker’s living standards and other rights.

Brian McWilliams, of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU) and a member of the SFLC executive board, speaking in Seattle, Washington reflected that concern, “If we can’t, as a nation, see the wisdom in following the road to peace, the first victim of a heightened militarism will be our civil liberties.”

The Labor Committee for Peace and Justice is another West Coast organization, formed by local leaders from 35 separate labor and peace groups. Their stated goals are to build an anti-war majority on work sites, and among union members and working class neighborhoods. They are conducting anti-war demonstrations, teach ins, and other local events in order to rally working class resistance.

If we want a successful movement for peace and justice, Labor should play a critical role. As Letwin pointed out, “There was a lot of grassroots organizing before 9/11, and its still happening.” This can be seen by the massive success of the March Against the War at Home and Abroad on April 20, in Washington DC. Labor and working class were well represented. Farmers, working families, and trade unionists marched among the usual crowd of radical youth and students through the streets of Washington DC. Together, we were able to send a much more powerful message than we’d be able to alone.

We still need to expand this understanding, but exciting progress has already been made. To build a real progressive movement we must continue to reach out to labor unions. Together, we can win the fight for peace and justice, at home and abroad.


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